Monday, March 10, 2008

What Did Paul Know and How Did He Come to Know It?

Christian apologists insist that secular historians cannot adequately explain how fantastic stories about a man named Jesus become so widely accepted so quickly. They insist that the only viable answer to this question is that Jesus really was the Messiah, that he really performed all the miracles described in the Gospels, and that he really arose from the dead. I personally think that the example of Mormonism is sufficient to account for the rapid growth of a new religion without resorting to supernatural explanations, however, I have another hypothesis that I have not seen addressed elsewhere.

One possible source of fantastic stories is victims of religious persecutions. If you take a look at the witch hunts that took place in the 1600’s both in Europe and North America, you will find many sober respectable citizens convinced that witches were casting spells, consorting with Satan, changing themselves into animals, and doing all sorts of fantastic things. These beliefs were founded both on the confessions of the accused and the testimony of informants.

I would not think it controversial to postulate that religious persecution is not generally conducive to inter-faith understanding. By this I mean that persecutors often do not have a very accurate understanding of their victims’ beliefs and practices. For example, Roman persecutors believed that early Christians engaged in incestuous relations based on the fact that they called one another brother and sister. Throughout the ages, there have been Christians who believed that Jews kidnapped and killed Christian babies in order to use their blood in religious rituals. Religious persecutors usually seem more interested in finding fantastic stories that justify the persecution than they are in an accurately understanding their victims’ faith.

The New Testament does not go into great detail about Paul’s persecution of the earliest Christians, but it at least seems reasonable to ask whether these activities would have given him a particularly accurate picture of what those early Christians believed about Jesus. He no doubt questioned suspects to determine whether they were followers of Jesus. He may have used informants to identify who the Christians were and what they believed. He may have used torture to obtain confessions both from Christians and from suspects who had been falsely accused of being Christians. It is difficult for me to see how Paul would have been able to tell the difference between a victim or informant who gave him accurate information about Jesus and his followers and one who made up some fantastic story because he thought it might be what Paul wanted to hear.

Isn’t it at least reasonable to think that when Paul had his experience on the road to Damascus, his picture of the earliest Christians' beliefs about Jesus might have been tainted by some factually inaccurate information? Then, when his vision convinced him that he should become a Christian himself, wouldn’t that factually inaccurate information have become part of Paul’s understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ life and teachings, and in turn part of Paul’s preaching and teaching?

According to Christian apologists, 2 Corinthians 15:3-7 reflects the earliest creed of the Christian church:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died
for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised
on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and
then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the
brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have
fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of
all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
Assuming that this was written by Paul (some scholars think it was inserted by a later scribe), there is still the possibility that this understanding arose out of Paul’s persecution of the early church rather than unbiased reports.

Evangelical scholars like Gary Habermas insist that Paul received the creed from Peter and James in a visit described in Galatians 1. 18-19. "Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord's brother." However, these scholars tend to ignore Paul's insistence a few verses earlier that he never received anything from anyone other than the Lord himself. "I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ." Paul seems to be pretty emphatic that his understanding of Christ's activities and purposes pre-dates his encounter with the original apostles, which takes it back to his encounters as a persecutor of the early church.

I cannot help but think that Paul would not have been terribly concerned if the stories that Peter and James had to tell did not match up with the conclusions he had already reached. After all, Paul was a well-educated man who had already enjoyed considerable success in preaching the gospel as he understood it throughout the region while Peter and James were uneducated men who were still in Jerusalem. By the same token, it is difficult to imagine that Peter and James would have worked very hard to straighten out Paul’s misunderstandings. Paul was a charismatic and convincing man who did not have a reputation for tolerating dissent.

I would welcome any comments on this hypothesis. It would not surprise me to find that qualified scholars had already considered whether Paul's picture of Jesus was shaped by information obtained during his early persecution of Christians. However, I have not run across it myself.

1 comment:

  1. Hey there I responded to your comments on my own blog. I'm certain that a good commentary on Galatians would answer your questions. The Word commentary by Richard Longenecker comes particularly highly acclaimed, but I don't yet have a copy myself.

    See for the book on Amazon.